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The Bruno Brief: No in-person learning: the plight of Pawtucket schools

In this week’s episode of The Bruno Brief, we talk to staff writer Sophie Butcher about the Pawtucket School Committee’s decision to reject hybrid and in-person learning at the district’s schools this semester. Pawtucket is the only city in Rhode Island to continue teaching entirely remotely, and parents, local Black Lives Matter leaders and the Rhode Island Department of Education are among those who have spoken out against the decision.



Subscribe to the podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or listen via the RSS feed, and send us tips and feedback for the next episode: herald@browndailyherald.com. The Bruno Brief is produced in partnership with WBRU.

Ben Glickman 

I'm Ben Glickman, and you're listening to the Bruno Brief from The Brown Daily Herald and WBRU. Each week, we take you inside one of The Brown Daily Herald's top stories. On January 12, the Pawtucket School Committee voted to keep all of its students fully remote for the rest of the school year. They're the only school committee in the state to reject hybrid or in-person learning. Local Black Lives Matter leaders have spoken out against this decision, arguing that in-person schooling is a necessary element of education. We're joined by Sophie Butcher, a staff writer for The Herald, to discuss the only school district in Rhode Island with no in-person classes. Sophie, thanks for being with us.

Sophie Butcher 

Yeah, thank you for being interested in the story.

Ben Glickman 

So let's talk about the sides of this issue in Pawtucket schools. Who are kind of the characters in this story that you talked to, and what are their positions?

Sophie Butcher 

So, on one side, we have the Pawtucket School Committee. They have made the decision to not bring children back to school for in-person learning until at least September, and they're the last city in Rhode Island without an in-person learning plan. They believe that it would not be safe given the COVID-19 situation and they also feel that their teachers have adjusted really well to teaching online over programs like Skype and Zoom, and that starting again now in person with new kids in an in-person setting would really negate all the gains that they've made in teaching online. From the other side is a bunch of local Pawtucket community organizations, chief among them, Black Lives Matter of Rhode Island. There's also been other community organizations like the Pawtucket Parents Alliance, who have been saying, "we need to get our kids back to school, this is unacceptable. Every other city in the state has a plan." The Rhode Island Department of Education and Commissioner Infante-Green have very openly said to them, "We want you to have an in-person reopening plan. Everyone else has got one.”

Ben Glickman 

So Black Lives Matter Rhode Island is very much in favor of reopening the schools for in-person learning. Can you explain why Black Lives Matter is involved with this issue in particular?

Sophie Butcher 

The head of Black Lives Matter of Rhode Island, Brother Gary Dantzler, lives in Pawtucket. When I spoke to him he said that a large part of the reason that BLM Rhode Island is so involved and so passionate about the school re— the schools in Pawtucket reopening is that a lot of the issues that affect all kids studying online disproportionately affect Black kids.

Gary Dantzler 

You’ve got to remember a lot of Black kids suffer the most from anxiety, attention deficit. And that goes for any kid actually. It's not just Black kids. But Black kids suffer more.

Sophie Butcher 

He said that, again, these issues disproportionately affect Black students because they are more likely to be from underprivileged backgrounds and therefore not have the luxury of, say, their own room to study in, or a large house where other family members aren't constantly getting under foot. So yeah, I would say that that's a large part of why Black Lives Matter Rhode Island is involved. And another reason is that there's definitely a worrying demographic gap between the district's students and its teachers. The Rhode Island Department of Education tells us that 66 percent of the district students identify as nonwhite but only 10 percent of its teachers. And Brother Gary has said that the school committee, which is the group that made the decision to keep schools closed, is also overwhelmingly white. And he feels that what he would describe as "these old white men" have no personal interest in getting Black kids back to school. So it falls to community organizations like Black Lives Matter Rhode Island to advocate.

Gary Dantzler 

Let me tell you something, they could have had a safety plan put together in a matter of two weeks. This is months going by, okay. And sometimes, these things happen, but we understand why they happen. It's about having a solution and a plan for these young kids. This is their future. We can't just drop them off and just say, "All right, go defend yourself. It's your job and your leadership as a community to take care of these Black kids.

Ben Glickman 

So it seems like Gary Dantzler is sort of an outspoken leader within the sort of cohort of groups that want schools in Pawtucket to reopen in person. Can you tell us a little bit more about sort of his personal stake?

Sophie Butcher 

Yeah, absolutely. Brother Gary has three school-aged children, all of whom study and go to school in the Pawtucket School District. So he definitely has a personal stake in this. Not only as a community activist and organizer, but also as a parent. He says that his children's online learning experience has been nothing short of miserable.

Gary Dantzler 

I'm watching, like, honestly watching my kids break down, you know? It's like they're in prison.

Ben Glickman 

So what are COVID-19 rates like in Pawtucket? Are they particularly bad? And how does that compare with some of the other districts that we know have reopened?

Sophie Butcher

So Pawtucket has, by percentage of people who tested positive in the municipality, it has the fourth-highest rate of COVID in Rhode Island. Ahead of Pawtucket are Central Falls with 30 percent of people testing positive, Johnston with 22 and Cranston is equal to Pawtucket with 21 percent of people testing positive. For Central Falls, which as I said, has 30 percent positivity, middle school and high school — they're phasing in their return and everyone else has fully returned. And for Johnston and Cranston, 22 and 21 percent respectively, both cities have a full return to school. Pawtucket has special needs learning population and pre-K and kindergarten students fully returned and everyone else is by distance learning.

Ben Glickman 

So Sophie, what is Pawtucket's reasoning that they gave to you about sort of why they think that remote learning is the path forward for them?

Sophie Butcher 

So another reason that Erin Dube of the Pawtucket School Committee gave to me as to why the district has not reopened the in-person learning is that the return to in-person learning would not be a smooth one, in their opinion. So because of the COVID-19 pandemic and necessary precautions around that, there would be frequent absences of teachers and students, because of quarantines and students and teachers being sent home or not able to come to school, for reasons as simple as allergies, because basically, if you have symptoms, you cannot come to school. She thinks that — and the Pawtucket School Committee at large thinks that that would wreak havoc with the school year and the learning process. And their priority is finding a consistent way to deliver education, which they don't think that a school year plagued by quarantines, absences of teachers and students would achieve. She also mentioned that for working-class parents, getting time off work to stay home with their children while their children were not able to attend school for one of the reasons that I've previously mentioned, would be very difficult because these people do not have a great deal of flexibility.

Ben Glickman 

Did you get a sense of how parents in Pawtucket feel about sending their kids back for in-person learning? Is that something that they want, as far as you know?

 Sophie Butcher 

From what I have seen, it would appear to me that a majority of parents in Pawtucket do want the district schools to reopen for in-person learning. So not only has the Pawtucket Parents Alliance partnered with Black Lives Matter Rhode Island, but Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green of the Rhode Island Department of Education sent an open letter to the Pawtucket School Committee members on January 6, in which she stated that Superintendent McWilliams, also of the Rhode Island Department of Education, shared that 70 percent would opt for in-person instruction if it were to become available in Pawtucket.

Ben Glickman 

And we should note that it sounds like from that letter that the Rhode Island Department of Education is pretty explicitly asking the district to open for in-person learning.

Sophie Butcher 

Oh, absolutely. Commissioner Infante-Green said: "We know that COVID-19 has exacerbated education inequalities and has disproportionately impacted communities of color here in Rhode Island. This is of particular concern for communities, like yours," speaking to Pawtucket, "that based on the state's new accountability system are tracking towards a one-star rating. At this time, Pawtucket is the only school district in the state that has not offered the opportunity for students to return to in-person instruction." The district has historically not performed well in statewide assessments: 86 percent of its Black and Hispanic students did not meet performance expectations on math assignments in the 2018-19 school year. And even among white students, who traditionally are more privileged, the numbers of students not meeting performance expectations are very high, hovering around the 70 percent mark. Yeah, the Rhode Island Department of Education has made no secret that they're not impressed with how things are tracking in Pawtucket and they very much want schools to reopen. Which is why it's quite remarkable that the school committee was willing to overlook that and overlook this open letter in making the decision on January 12 to keep students home until September.

Ben Glickman 

So it sounds like the Rhode Island Department of Education is essentially saying that these metrics of Pawtucket's performance as a school district may be further harmed by not returning for in-person learning. Is that right? 

Sophie Butcher 

It certainly appears to me that the Rhode Island Department of Education is saying that a failure to meet the standard that all other school districts in Rhode Island have met in reopening in-person learning will adversely affect the district's standing as a location of education.

Ben Glickman 

What do sort of national trends around in-person and remote learning tell us about this issue of school outcomes being linked to location of study? Is there any data about that?

Sophie Butcher 

Yeah, it certainly appears that disadvantaged students are far more likely than other students to be studying remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic. There was a study by Columbia University that I believe was cited in the New York Times that showed us that about 58 percent of nonwhite students are currently relying heavily on online learning, compared to only 36 percent of white students. And this, coupled with other reports that online learning is significantly less effective than in-person studies, are raising worries in the country's education communities that inequalities between traditionally privileged white students and underprivileged students of color will only continue to grow with the disparity between who's learning in person and who's learning online. So this is very much not just a Pawtucket issue, this is more of a symptom of the ills of inequality in education across America.

Ben Glickman 

How does that disproportionate access to in-person learning that you mentioned, how does that impact students?

Sophie Butcher 

One of the most heartbreaking aspects of the fact that those learning online are disproportionately from disadvantaged communities is that online learning is failing students. For instance, the Washington Post tells us that in one district in southern Illinois, 30 percent of the district's Hispanic students failed at least one class, which is a nearly double increase from last year when only 16 percent failed. Among white students, the figure barely changed, going just from 15 percent to 16 percent. 

Ben Glickman 

So you've spoken a lot about how there's sort of a plethora of groups pushing against this decision by the Pawtucket School District. Is that pressure working?

Sophie Butcher 

I would like to say yes, actually. We have seen some signs that the combined action of groups like Black Lives Matter Rhode Island, the Pawtucket Parents Alliance and bigger state groups, like the Rhode Island Department of Education, really are being successful in their efforts to put pressure on the Pawtucket School Committee. There will be another school committee meeting on the ninth of February, with an additional vote on the return to school. So I think community groups are quite optimistic that the decision on not returning to in-person learning until September will be reversed at this meeting on the ninth in the face of mounting pressure.

Ben Glickman 

Sophie, thanks for being with us.

Sophie Butcher 

Yeah, thank you so much for letting me talk about this, and I'm really excited to see where this podcast goes.

Ben Glickman 

In other news: This weekend, student protesters handed out posters criticizing the University's handling of sexual assault. The organizers say they plan to put up the posters in prominent locations around campus. Here's one organizer, Carter Woodruff.

Carter Woodruff 

We need to recognize that it has been a deliberate choice on the part of administrations not to prioritize this very, very prevalent and chronic crisis on campus, this public health crisis and public safety crisis that if you look up the statistics should really be given priority given its severity.

Ben Glickman 

This has been the Bruno Brief. Our show is produced by Livi Burdette, Corey Gelb-Bicknell and me. The Bruno Brief is an equal partnership between WBRU and The Brown Daily Herald. I'm Ben Glickman. Thanks for listening. We'll see you next week.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

____________________

Produced by: Olivia Burdette, Ben Glickman and Corey Gelb-Bicknell

Music: 

Valantis by Blue Dot Sessions (www.sessions.blue)

JoDon by Blue Dot Sessions (www.sessions.blue

Denzel Sprak by Blue Dot Sessions (www.sessions.blue)

Nesting by Blue Dot Sessions (www.sessions.blue

 

Special thanks to Emily Teng and Olivia Burdette for cover design.



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